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Mesa Union's Third Grade Class are Mars Scientists

by Bonnie Walters

The Mars Odyssey spacecraft moves silently through the cold vacuum of space.  Its Thermal Emission Imaging System camera (THEMIS) activates and an image is taken of the planet's surface. Back on Earth, Wendi Best's third grade class at Mesa Union Elementary waits to receive their image.  Anticipation runs high, as this class has been readying for this moment since last November.

Ms. Best has the only third grade class in the world accepted into the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP).  Sponsored by NASA and based out of Arizona State University, MSIP offers students nationwide the opportunity to be involved in authentic Mars research.  Teams of students in grades 5 through college sophomore level have the opportunity to work with scientists, mission planners and educators on the THEMIS team at ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility, to image a site on Mars using the THEMIS visible wavelength camera onboard the Mars Odyssey.

Mesa Union Elementary is located in Somis, California.  Mesa Union is a NASA Explorer School (NES), and promotes and supports the incorporation of NASA content and programs into science, technology and mathematics curricula.  Ms. Best took a NES team workshop last summer at NASA Langley Research Center and was intrigued with the MSIP.

Third grade curriculum studies landforms on Earth and like Earth, Mars has polar ice caps and clouds in its atmosphere, seasonal weather patterns, volcanoes, canyons and other recognizable landforms.  Before long, her eight and nine year old students were involved in comparative planetary geology.

Following a multitude of steps her third grade students submitted a Science Team Proposal.  They formed a question based on the following scientific inquiry: 'Will There Be Visible Changes In The Ice On The Rim Of A Crater In A Short Period Of Time?'  Next they needed to select a site on Mars related to their team research.  They sat in on ASU's teleconferences with Mars scientists, submitted PowerPoint presentations of their own, and when all was done waited to hear whether they were accepted.

Their notification came at the end of January 2006.  They were given 12 orbits in which to find a suitable target and command the THEMIS visible camera to take a specific image of Mars surface.  After hours of searching various craters and other features, three targets were chosen and finally one selected.  Their submission was accepted and the students waited anxiously for their image.  When the image finally arrived, their comments ranged from 'It looks like a face fading away... it's a half moon shape with a bruise... and it looks like a masterpiece!'  Then they got down to work comparing images and making discoveries of their own.

Ms. Best's intense dedication to her students and the MSIP program is to be commended.  Stay tuned to find out the answer to their inquiry.  Meanwhile, in the cold vacuum of space 314 million kilometers away, THEMIS awaits its next command.

Click here to see the pictures from Odyssey and the students' results!

For more information about MSIP, visit:

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- 23 May 2006


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Last Updated:
26 May 2006

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